Neighbors teared up Wednesday as news spread that police had found the body of a child who was reported missing a week ago from his Crystal Lake home.
Janelle Butler, who lives across the street from the house where Andrew “AJ” Freund and his family lived, called the situation “sickening.”
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s awful. ... It makes me sick to my stomach. ... I don’t know how anyone does this and buries their own child.”
JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr. reported their 5-year-old son missing April 18. The two claimed they had last seen him April 17 at bedtime. Police found his body Wednesday near a field in Woodstock off Dean Street, just north of Gayle Drive, and charged Cunningham and Freund with first-degree murder in connection with their son’s death.
Butler said that the last time she saw AJ he was going into the house with his younger brother, and they argued over who would open the door “like little boys do.” She said she had called police to the home before and occasionally brought groceries to Cunningham when she knew the family was struggling.
“I wish I could have seen into the future and grabbed them both,” she said. “It’s forever seared in my mind. Those two little sweet boys.”
Neighbors and community members gathered Wednesday evening outside of the house at 94 Dole Ave. and in the Woodstock Square to hold vigils for the child.
More than a thousand mourners gathered outside the Crystal Lake home for the vigil. Many men and women, some with their own children present, wept and prayed for AJ. Others read scripture or stood in silence.
A growing memorial sits in front of the home. “Paw Patrol” balloons, stuffed dinosaurs, candles, flowers and a cross were carefully placed on the lawn.
Jennifer Falbo of Crystal Lake stopped by Wednesday afternoon to place a pair of angel wings at the memorial. She said she had seen the family come into her Crystal Lake restaurant before.
“I have been watching since right when it happened,” she said. “It’s been very, very devastating.”
She said she kept candles lit in honor of AJ the past few nights at her home and felt a sense of closure after Wednesday’s developments.
“I would have obviously rather had a different outcome, but at least he isn’t out there in the cold with the animals,” Falbo said. “That was really getting me – to think he was out there. He is at peace now.”
Crystal Lake resident Shona Derma came to the home to pay her respects Wednesday.
“I don’t think [the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] was right to not get him out of an environment like this,” she said. “I feel very, very sad.”
DCFS and police had been called to the home multiple times in the past for reports of theft, fighting, drug use and filthy, inadequate living conditions, records show.
DCFS released a statement Wednesday saying it was committed to conducting a comprehensive review of its work with AJ and his family to understand the department’s shortcomings.
Nikki Mouroukas brought her 3-year-old son to the home to place flowers at the memorial. She had been to the home before to add toys to the pile.
The community has felt the weight of heavy emotion since AJ’s disappearance, she said.
“The whole community just kind of shut down,” she said. “It’s been somber. From the moment it happened, I think we all knew. We wanted to have hope, but all the signs were there that this wasn’t right. ... I am so sad he was failed by everyone.”
Mouroukas also spent time Wednesday wrapping blue ribbons around two trees in front of the home. Neighbors also have placed blue ribbons on their property as a show of support for AJ over the past week.
“I’m glad that he was found, but I’m also sad it was this way,” said McHenry resident Mary Weser, who placed red and yellow flowers at the home after law enforcement officials gave a news conference. “I feel like he was part of our lives, as well. He was a 5-year-old boy, an innocent child. He didn’t deserve this. ... We loved him. We didn’t know him, but we love him.”
A large crowd also gathered Wednesday evening in the Woodstock Square, where they held a moment of silence and prayed for the boy.
Community members wearing pins with blue flowers on them hugged one another and wept and the Rev. Joe Meyer of Crossway Church spoke about the shared pain AJ’s disappearance has spread throughout the community.
“A little 5-year-old boy lost his life,” Meyer said. “There may be comfort in knowing AJ is no longer suffering.”
• Reporters Katie Smith and Daniel Gaitan contributed to this report.